Yes, You Should Watch The Chi

The Showtime series may not be perfect, but it’s an illuminating look at Chicago beyond the violent headlines.

Salim Muwakkil February 15, 2018

The shooting death of Coogie (Jahking Guillory, center) kicks off an atypical crime story in Showtime’s The Chi, one that focuses on Chicago’s community dynamics. (MATT DINERSTEIN/SHOWTIME)

Showtime’s The Chi, which pre­miered Jan­u­ary 7, is one of the most eager­ly antic­i­pat­ed pro­duc­tions of 2018. Its 33-year-old cre­ator, Lena Wait­he, became the first Black woman ever to win a com­e­dy writ­ing Emmy (for an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal episode of the Net­flix series Mas­ter of None).

But rather than focusing on the intricacies and implications of the underground economy—as The Wire did in Baltimore—the show centers instead on community dynamics.

With The Chi, her intent is to depict Chica­go as it looks from the inside — a goal that drew Com­mon, a.k.a Lon­nie Rashid Lynn, Jr., a Chica­go rapper/​actor known for his com­mu­ni­ty con­scious­ness, to sign on as an exec­u­tive pro­duc­er. That ambi­tion has placed the series at the cen­ter of a debate on the func­tion of fic­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of urban Amer­i­ca. Is this lat­est iter­a­tion of urban vérité — a cin­e­mat­ic style pop­u­lar­ized by HBO’s The Wire—a fruit­ful dive into an authen­tic Chica­go, or just anoth­er TV safari fea­tur­ing picaresque tales of exot­ic natives?

Black Chicagoans are par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive to this ques­tion, giv­en the city’s high­ly vis­i­ble vio­lence prob­lems and its already dam­aged rep­u­ta­tion. This is a lot of soci­o­log­i­cal bag­gage to throw at a series intend­ed to enter­tain a mass audi­ence. And to focus on the need for pos­i­tive imagery or an accu­rate class analy­sis is to con­fuse cul­tur­al ther­a­py and polit­i­cal analy­sis for aes­thet­ic crit­i­cism. No mat­ter how pure Waithe’s motives, the series has to deliv­er as enter­tain­ment and as art. On that score, Waithe’s effort is admirable, though a mixed bag.

The dia­logue has a col­lo­qui­al authen­tic­i­ty — aid­ed, no doubt, by the crew of black writ­ers Wait­he assem­bled — as do the set shots of var­i­ous neigh­bor­hoods, although Chicagoans may find some geo­graph­i­cal incon­sis­ten­cies. She is work­ing in a genre vir­tu­al­ly invent­ed by David Simon (The Wire), and there are some Simon alums in The Chi to sharp­en that point. But rather than focus­ing on the intri­ca­cies and impli­ca­tions of the under­ground econ­o­my — as The Wire did in Bal­ti­more — the show cen­ters instead on com­mu­ni­ty dynamics.

The sto­ry opens with a wild­ly coiffed boy named Coo­gie (Jahk­ing Guil­lo­ry) care­freely rid­ing his bike though hard­scrab­ble neigh­bor­hoods, play­ful­ly inter­act­ing with Arab store own­ers— a ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence in these parts — and just doing kid stuff. It isn’t long before he’s ensnared in a net woven by one of those mur­ders that keep Chica­go in the head­lines, and his death is added to the toll. Wait­he mines com­plex­i­ty out of an all-tootyp­i­cal sto­ry of com­mu­ni­ty vio­lence by refract­ing the tale through the sen­si­bil­i­ties of a wide array of char­ac­ters, an auda­cious under­tak­ing for a rel­a­tive neophyte.

The series fol­lows four (male) main char­ac­ters as their lives inter­sect: Coogie’s old­er broth­er, Bran­don (Jason Mitchell), a hard-charg­ing striv­er with restau­ra­teur aspi­ra­tions; Kevin (Alex Hib­bert), a 12-year-old who is both too wise and too naïve; Emmett (Jacob Lat­ti­more), a mate­ri­al­is­tic teenage lothario who is sud­den­ly bur­dened with father­hood; and Ron­nie (Ntare Guma Mba­ho Mwine), an old­school slack­er whose adopt­ed son’s mur­der starts the whole thing.

All of these char­ac­ters have wispy con­nec­tions that firm up lat­er and reveal a web of social­iza­tion that inad­ver­tent­ly per­pet­u­ates dys­func­tion. Tra­cy (Tai Davis), Ronnie’s ex and the moth­er of the first man mur­dered, insists that he do some­thing” about the death of their child. Coogie’s mur­der places a sim­i­lar street oblig­a­tion on his broth­er Bran­don, who’s on the verge of a pro­fes­sion­al break­through. Waithe’s script nei­ther evades nor accen­tu­ates the neg­a­tive as much as it seeks to con­tex­tu­al­ize what is usu­al­ly pro­ject­ed as irre­deemably negative.

Coogie’s impulse to swipe the chain and shoes from a dead body, for instance, seems an accept­able option in the preda­to­ry con­text of these neigh­bor­hoods. Waithe’s can­ny obser­va­tions of com­mu­ni­ty eti­quette are her unique con­tri­bu­tion to the ever­ex­pand­ing urban crime genre. Her depic­tion of Emmett’s unin­ten­tion­al father­hood cap­tures its awk­ward qual­i­ty with a rare insight, espe­cial­ly for a woman.

In fact, if there’s any script defi­cien­cy, it’s the lack of a ful­ly round­ed female role. I sup­pose it’s unrea­son­able to expect a tele­vi­sion series to dis­card all stereo­types — reli­able tropes ground view­ers. Thus, The Chi gives us the sym­pa­thet­ic out­sider cop, the tor­ment­ing har­ri­dan, the school­yard skir­mish­es. By and large, the series man­ages to stay true to Waithe’s inten­tion to human­ize the denizens of her fic­tive South Side. The ques­tion many are ask­ing, though, is, do these times demand the por­tray­al of denizens with dif­fer­ent kinds of stories?

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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